- Brian Boyd responds:
In responding to my critical discussion, Lisa Zunshine restates the argument of Why We Read Fiction at some length but replies to none of my specific criticisms. These criticisms are all based on the evidence of the texts that she offers as case studies, especially Mrs Dalloway and Lolita. Although I—and the textual evidence—contradict her claims, she provides no answers to the criticisms.
Let me respond to two restatements. First: "Fictional narratives endlessly experiment with rather than automatically execute our evolved cognitive adaptations" (p. 190). This is often, but almost tautologically, true in the case of experimental fiction, as the work of Richardson, Woolf, and Nabokov (to cite Zunshine's key examples) was in their time. It is not necessarily true in the sense Zunshine especially means it—that authors give us a demanding cognitive workout of our capacity for Theory of Mind by incorporating multiple embedding, A's thoughts of B's thoughts of C's thoughts of D's thoughts of E—even in the case of fictional experimenters like Defoe, Tolstoy, or Joyce, and it is not true of the vast bulk of fiction, from folk tale or jokes to soap operas or pulp [End Page 196] novels, and it cannot therefore be an explanation for "why we read fiction," though it may explain why some of us read some fiction. And to identify overloaded embedding when it is not present, as Zunshine does in discussing Mrs Dalloway, constitutes a simple misreading.
Second: "Our Theory of Mind makes literature as we know it possible" (p. 191). Granted, without Theory of Mind we would not have fiction. But nor would we have fiction without many other features of human nature: without sociality, episodic memory, language, childhood pretend play, empathy, the brain's inhibitory mechanisms, folk physics, our mental databases for individuals, and much, much more. An evolutionary and cognitive understanding of fiction needs to take into account many aspects of our capacity for understanding events and stories, not just one.
Apart from one three-word phrase, Zunshine's sole quotation from my review is this: "To what extent has Zunshine benefited from the methodology, rather than results, of science?" (I refer to "the results of science" here because I note that although, for instance, she relies most heavily on Simon Baron-Cohen among Theory of Mind researchers, while ignoring major figures in the field like Janet Astington or Josef Perner, she does not even cite the book or any of the more than twenty papers of which Baron-Cohen has been primary author since his 1995 Mindblindness.) Her quotation from my review continues: "Alas, she appears to have learned less than one would have hoped. . . . Her formulations are often weak and indecisive, hedgings, rather than strong testable hypotheses. Rather than apply scientific stringency to her literary analysis, she seems more interested in exploiting than testing what she can find." She confesses herself puzzled by this charge. Let me explain one simple point.
Science's core methodological principle is that claims should be subjected to the test of evidence, and accepted or rejected on the basis of their compatibility with the relevant evidence. Leo Spitzer long ago pointed out that good reading follows scientific method: we read, we make hypotheses about the text, and we either confirm or disconfirm the hypotheses according to what we find in the text, and search for ampler hypotheses when previous ones have been discredited.1 Literary scholarship has long been vitiated by a far flabbier methodology, by the naïve assumption that evidence for a proposition suffices: "I see a and b in the text, therefore my claim C is a valid interpretation." But if reading or interpretation C is incompatible with counter-evidence d and e in the text, it is a falsified hypothesis and needs to yield to a better [End Page 197] reading, an interpretation that can incorporate this counter-evidence. I showed that Zunshine's claims about her prime examples were not compatible with evidence in the texts. She does not challenge the textual counter-evidence I provide, but just ignores it. That is where literary criticism most urgently needs to learn from scientific...